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March 05, 2006


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Richard B. McKinley

To Whom It May Concern:

The comments about the ice storm occurring in "subzero temperatures" strikes me as a probable blending of two different weather crises in Madison in the 1970s. It is of course impossible to have an ice storm in subzero temperatures, as precipitation could not possibly fall as rain at that temperature. In fact, the ice storm was caused by the fact that during two or three days of unrelenting drizzle, temperatures at ground level hovered just below freezing, allowing ice to form on tree branches and power lines in succeeding layers.

There was no problem with pipes freezing during an ice storm which occurred during March, 1976. That can only occur in the dead of winter when the maximum frost depth penetrates to the depth of the city water mains. That would not have been the case when it had been in the 60s and 70s just a few days before the ice storm.

The subzero temperatures and frozen pipes most probably refer to a spectacularly cold January 1977, peaking during Super Bowl weekend. I was driving a Checker Cab at that time, and a Checker Cab had to pick me up to take me to work because my own car would not start, like most cars parked outside. Service stations were backed up for DAYS trying to thaw out customers' cars so they could start, but with only one or two service bays per location and the six hours thawing required to do the job, versus tens of thousands cars, well, you can do the math. AAA was reporting a several day waiting list for people whose cars would not start.

It was so cold that winter that ice actually formed on the INSIDE walls of my apartment at 511 W. Johnson (right next to Howard Johnson's).
Every time some cooking was done, or somebody took a shower, a glossy brownish layer was added to the disgusting ice sheet that was our apartment wall, then it would sit there and drip incessantly.

The severe cold actually started with the first subzero temperatures at the end of Thanksgiving weekend, and the cold didn't really let up until February. During the worst part in January, I recall reading that the severe cold had caused the ground frost to penetrate to a rarely reached depth of nine feet, which would threaten the city water mains. That was when announcements were made asking people to keep their water running at a trickle ("about the width of a pencil", we were told).

Although it would again be similarly cold during stretches in other winters over the next 5 years, it would never stay so cold for so long as it did during December 1976-January 1977 which produced something like a record 47 straight days without a single minute above freezing.

Richard B. McKinley
UW '77
Chicago, IL



The 'subzero temperature' refers to what happened after the rain stopped falling and the temperature dropped in the next 24 hours. First came the rain as you described, hitting Madison when ground temperatures were just below freezing causing the ice build up. The danger to pipes freezing in the following days when the temperature dropped refers not to underground pipes but water pipes in homes that had no heat.

'Subzero' was probably an overstatement. The temperatures dropped from the 30's to about 10 degrees, enough to freeze water pipes in houses without heat after 24 hours.

1976 temps:
1977 temps:
Thanks for your reflections.


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